Editorial: The Truth About Cell Phone Bans

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery
editorial the truth about cell phone bans

I oppose driver cell phone usage bans on principle. It is already against the law to drive while distracted in every State of the Union. Even so, several states and many cities have enacted wholesale bans on the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. Other states and local governments ban teenagers from using the devices or prohibit their use in school zones. So what’s the harm? The additional legislation is surely no worse than wearing a belt and suspenders—by itself either will keep your pants up, but it’s nice to know that there’s a backup in case one of the modesty preservation systems fails. Comforting, isn’t it? NO! It makes my liberty loving soul retch. I say, down with the tyranny of the Nanny State! Nonetheless, the more time I spend outside of my ivory attic and driving America’s highways and byways, the harder it is for me to maintain this ideal.

I must confess that I occasionally talk on the cell phone when I drive. I commute nearly twenty miles to my office each day. I probably average one brief cell phone conversation a day while at the helm. Doing so has never impeded my ability to maintain my lane, react to slowing traffic ahead, or otherwise lose track of where I am or where I’m going. How can I be sure that I’m not making a nuisance of myself while I obliviously chat away on my phone? Call it the finger test; I don’t see any more of them with the cell phone than I do without.

I’m not alone. Four out of every five drivers surveyed by Nationwide Insurance in 2007 admitted to driving distracted. Their list of 26 distractions includes fiddling with the radio (82%); drinking a beverage (80%); operating a cell phone (73%); snacking (68%); and eating (41%). Personally I’m guilty of doing everything on the list except smoking (21%); applying make-up (12%); driving with a pet on my lap (8%); reading (5%); driving while intoxicated (4%); and shaving (2%).

Lest we lose perspective, some of the Nationwide Insurance survey’s write-in responses make it clear that drivers can become seriously distracted even without a cell phone. “Peed out the window while going down the road. Well, you asked.”—Baby Boomer male, Sacramento [Ed.: Welcome to Sacramento!]. “I wear sandals or slip on shoes 90% of the time. So I always take my left shoe off and put my foot up in the seat. I have a drink in one hand, smoke in the other hand, and drive with my left foot.”—Gen Y female, Memphis. “Shaved legs, eaten a taco, put on make-up and drank alcohol at the same time.”—Gen Y female, San Antonio.

Yet somehow cell phone distracted drivers seem to be causing all of the noticeable problems. I used to presume that people were drunk when I saw an idiot driver cut cross two lanes to turn right from the left lane, meander off the road, drive obnoxiously slow, or make any number of obvious driving errors. Now I think (sometimes out loud), “I’ll bet that jackass is talking on his cell phone!” I can’t remember the last time I was wrong.

Science bears this out. Multiple studies show that reaction times in drivers using cell phones are as much as a quarter second longer than non-distracted drivers. Hands free phones aren’t much better. The worst results are among elderly cell phone users and multitaskers who try to drive, talk and do something else like eat or paint toenails. A driving simulator study at the University of Utah found that test subjects with 0.08% blood alcohol content performed better than sober subjects yapping on cell phones.

So, there ought to be a law . . . Right? If only it were as simple as passing a law to create our own nirvana. Just when I am ready to break with my libertarian proclivities, I find this headline in the Dallas Morning News: “Study: Cellphone bans in school zones have no effect on drivers’ behavior.” Speed Measurement Laboratories, in a study commissioned by “several law enforcement publications,” monitored school zones in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. They found that as many drivers, about 1 in 10, used their cell phones in school zones during banned hours as they did during non-banned hours. They also found no difference in drivers between these school zones with bans and zones without them. Still, Speed Measurement Laboratories’ front man Carl Fors maintains his support for the National Safety Council’s recommendation for a comprehensive ban of all cell phone usage by drivers, including hands free devices.

Unfortunately, laws can’t always fix things. A constitutional amendment banning booze could not excise America of the moral turpitude of alcoholism. If drivers are going to ignore cell phone driving prohibitions, what’s the point?

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2 of 103 comments
  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Apr 23, 2009
    The paper did a nice job of summarizing a lot of the research on the topic and commenting on the flaws. But the free-minutes-as-benchmark argument is a questionable approach to take for making the point. Traffic studies typically measure fatality and accident rates based upon vehicle miles traveled, and this one doesn’t do that. If I understood the study correctly, it was an attempt to deal with the causality issue. Someone may have a cell phone to their ear, and get in an accident, yet using the cell phone may not have been the cause. A sharp increase in use after 9pm should result in an increase in accidents after 9pm (other distractions being equal)

  • Pch101 Pch101 on Apr 23, 2009
    A sharp increase in use after 9pm should result in an increase in accidents after 9pm (other distractions being equal) That was my interpretation of the goal of the paper. But without knowing the quantity of driving before 9pm vs. after 9pm, it's difficult to compare. There aren't many accidents at 4am, for example, not because 4am is a uniquely safe time to drive, but because not many people are driving at that hour in order to have accidents. In other words, the time distribution of phone usage and driving may not match. A disproportionately lower number of the post-9pm calls may be occurring from the car; the calls are being made in higher volumes, but not being from the same locations. The data doesn't tell us, either way, so the story isn't complete.

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